The Reality of Fear

Posted: June 24, 2015 in horror, psychology
Tags: , , , , , ,

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So many times I have watched a horror movie or read a horror book and said to myself (or my viewing partners) what I would have done better in the terrifying situation. Of course I would not run up the stairs with my oversized breasts bobbing in my face from the methodically slow-walking serial killer pursuing me. Of course I would not trip and fall at the most inopportune moment as I ran in a blind panic through the woods in the dark.

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From the comfort of my safe couch, of course I would not be scared stupid.

However, in reality, can I really say these things? Can I really forecast how my brain would operate when awash with fear and instinctual responses? Would I be any smarter than those horror characters who are written in just to populate the body count?

I would like to assume I would be smarter, that I would be final girl level intelligent and crafty. However, in honest and reality, I do not know. There is no way to predict your own fear response, no way to truly gauge what a situation will do to your mind and behavior.

I thought about this idea a lot while I was writing The Waning.

In The Waning, I put my protagonist in a cage. I created a strong, smart, independent, powerful, if not unsympathetic woman and had her locked up in a metal box for a long and painful time. I wanted my narrator to be fearless in her normal life because the story, to me, in an examination of what prolonged fear does to her.

Artwork by Phil Beachler, the Graphics Smith

Artwork by Phil Beachler, the Graphics Smith

As I was writing, I thought about all the things I would do. If a person locked me in a cage in the dark, would I scream? Would I fight? Would I cry? I tell myself I would fight. I would never stop fighting. I would fight until it freed or killed me. That is what I want to believe, and maybe under the right circumstances, it would be true.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I wrote the graphic scenes of captivity and torture, the more I started to doubt it. Humans, as a species, are conditioned by painful and negative stimuli. There are few things more painful or negative than torture, isolation, and captivity. How many punches in the face would I actually take before I stopped getting up? If I’m honest with myself, it could be as few as two.

Artwork by Phil Beachler, the Graphics Smith

Artwork by Phil Beachler, the Graphics Smith

On the other hand, perhaps one would gain a tolerance for pain and violence? That phenomena is just as psychologically valid as operant conditioning. Maybe if I spent months in a cage, the cage would not seem like torture any more. Maybe at a certain point, it would become familiar, comforting even. But at that point, would I have any fight in me, or would I have been changed by the pain and the fear?

I think it is easy to sit from the comfort and safety of my couch and forecast how I would behave under the worst of circumstances. We all do it. It is natural to imagine ourselves in the situations we see or hear or read about, and it natural to think the best of ourselves as we view with a cool head. Yet my own life experiences have shown me that I do not always exhibit final girl behavior. More often than not, I, like the many stupid characters I chastise, behave like serial killer bait.

Years ago, my boyfriend’s house was routinely burglarized. He traveled for work, and while he was away, I checked his mail, fed his fish, and so on. On more than one occasion, I arrived at the house after it had been broken into. Did I wait outside and call the police? Did I even hesitate, thinking the perpetrator might still be inside? No. I walked right in like a stupid white girl in a horror movie.

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More than once.

Then, while I was working as a contractor in Iraq, I got the slightest taste of war, or the peripherals thereof. My exposure was extremely minimal, as I deployed after contractors were regulated to the military bases. What was common place, though, were rocket attacks. In my first couple weeks, I was sitting in a DFAC (dining facility) with my coworkers. The rocket sirens started blaring. The TCNs (third country nationals) flew out from the kitchen; people started climbing under the tables. I stood somewhat shocked, somewhat confused, and looked to my coworkers for direction. One of them said to me, “If a rocket hits this place, a table isn’t going to save you.”

And we sat there and ate until the sirens stopped.

In both cases, my reactions were either not smart or not what I expected. I would have thought I was smart enough to not walk into a house where someone could be lurking. I would have thought rocket sirens would be me under the table. Neither were the case.

If I had to generalize, I would have to say my default fear response is hesitant observation. I try to evaluate the situation to make sure it is happening; I might be in denial. I try to think my way through panic or talk myself out of it. Yet that is not always the case, and I cannot say that I could guess at what I would do at the mercy of my own fear in different situations.

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And that is what I find fascinating. The unpredictability of human behavior in the face of fear. That is why I wrote an entire book about what fear and pain could do to a woman.

What do you do when you are scared? What does fear do to your behavior?

 

Christina Bergling

christinabergling.com
facebook.com/chrstnabergling
@ChrstnaBergling
chrstnaberglingfierypen.wordpress.com
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SavagesCoverChristinaSavages

Two survivors search the ruins of America for the last strain of humanity. Marcus believes they are still human; Parker knows her own darkness. Until one discovery changes everything.

Available now on Amazon!
savagesnovella.com

TheWaning_CoverThe Waning, coming July 2015

Beatrix woke up in a cage. Can she survive long enough to escape, or will he succeed at breaking her down into a possession?

Available now on Amazon!
thewaning.com

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